Researching Africa: Problems, Initiatives, Resources

Researching Africa can be extremely difficult. This guide seeks to highlight some of the key problems faced and while it cannot answer every problem, some suggestions and resources are provided to assist in addressing these challenges.


  1. The information doesn’t exist
  2. The information may exist, but the search strategy doesn’t find it
  3. The researcher can find the reference, but not the item
  4. How can the researcher determine if the information is accurate and valid?

Problem1: The Information Doesn’t Exist

“My thesis advisor says I have to have current population data, but the latest census for Ghana hasn’t been published.”

“I’m doing a paper on the role of Anglo-American Mining Co. in apartheid, and need all the secret information they don’t put in the annual reports.”

“I’m looking for a product preference survey on soft drink brands in Mali.”

Problem 2: The Search Strategy Doesn’t Work

Personal Names

Some names, such as Ethiopian or Congolese names, don’t invert. Tekalign Wolde-Mariam is entered exactly the way it’s written here. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo is entered under Ngugi. Some honorifics, such as Aljahi, denoting someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, are also used as given names.

Catalogers turn to the Library of Congress Authority File for help. BUT indexes and databases don’t always consult authority files.

Place Names

  • Place names in Africa can change. After independence in 1980, the country once known as Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and its capital, once known as Salisbury, became Harare.
  • Place names established by the Library of Congress as subject headings or corporate authors are determined by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
  • BUT authors may use place names that are not accepted as subject headings, for example Biafra.

Ethnic Groups and Languages

  • Variant spellings and forms, e.g. Fulani, Fula, Peul
  • Prefixes, e.g. kiSwahili / Swahili
  • Theoretical differences, e.g. Bambara/Mandekan
  • Ethnologue is a great resource on languages

Subject Headings/Word Searches

  • LC subject headings and other controlled vocabularies don’t always match the way researchers look for information, e.g., “examples of ethnic conflict in Africa.”
  • Authors don’t always put significant words in the title and abstract.
  • Terminology changes over time

Problem 3: Found the Reference But Where is the Item?

Consult African Studies Libraries and Collections

Get Publications from Africa

Problem 4: Determining if the Information is Accurate and Valid

There are many pitfalls when it comes to determining the accuracy and validity of information sources.

Here are some issues to consider:

  • Author: is the author well known in the field? Does any biographical information exist about the author. Have they authored other publications on the topic? With which lens (political, historical etc.) does the author view the topic?
  • Content: is the topic controversial? Has the author consulted primary sources? How extensive is the list of references or bibliography?
  • Publisher: is the publisher reputable? Is the document published in print or only online? Which other publications do they publish? Has the author self published?
  • Date of the publication: how old is the information? Is it still relevant? In the case of older books – are they accessible? What were the prevailing beliefs or attitudes at certain times in history?
  • Websites: look carefully at the domain name. Educational institutions typically end with .edu and organizations with .org. Government departments end with .gov.
  • Citation counts: how many times has the article/book been cited by other authors in the field? Usually a greater number of citations indicates a higher quality article. Who has cited it?


Resources for Researching Africa


Africa-Specific Indexes:


For African dissertations, the Association of African Universities is developing a Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD).


There are good lists on the Stanford site and the Columbia site. For paper and microfilm holdings, check the Union List of African Newspapers at CAMP.

Government Agencies:

African Governments on the WWW provides good links (when they work).

Electronic Resources

H-Africa, is a great example of an electronic discussion list featuring discussion logs, book reviews, tables of contents to Africanist and non-Africanist journals, and more. There is a “family” of African sites linked from this page:

E.g. A Sampling of Resources for Population Studies